Thursday, March 22, 2018

Sermon: On Our Hearts Until It's In Our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34

So I talked to you earlier about the new covenant that God promises to the people of Israel while they are in Exile. Jeremiah shares an interesting image – rather than engraving the law on stone tablets God will now engrave the law on our hearts. We won’t have to try to learn it, or teach it, it will just be there – guiding us.

Jeremiah’s vision is an amazing word of hope in times of evil and injustice. The days are surely coming, when people will no longer be confused about good and evil. It is certain, it will happen, people will be guided by what is right and just. God will make a new covenant with us, and this one will be written on our hearts.

As I was researching this sermon, I found this reflection from Anne Lamott. “There’s a lovely Hassidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, ‘Why ON our hearts, and not IN them?’ The rabbi answered, ‘Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your hearts, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.’”[1]

When I first read that story, it was clear that the rabbi was talking about this scripture passage from Jeremiah. But I was not sure where to go with it. I knew that it would take further thought. I mean, what is the difference between having the covenant on our hearts instead of in our hearts. Why did the student ask the rabbi that? Why did it matter to him?

It is such a small difference, that difference between on and in. It is one of the most difficult things to learn when you are learning a different language.

For example, I was an exchange student in Germany, so I learned rather quickly that in German you don’t stand in a field. People think that is funny, because it means you are buried up to your neck in the field. Rather, you stand on a field, on the top of it.

But we don’t think of it that way. We think of being in the field, like we are standing within its borders, while if I told you a farmer were standing on his field, you would understand me, but you think it sounded strange. Why would I need to tell you he was on top of it? I mean, if he weren’t on top of it, if he were under it, that would imply something very different in English! Poor Farmer Fred is six feet under his field.

The difference between in and on in this example is quite slight, and yet somehow to each of our languages it is important. Likewise for this student of the rabbi, the difference was probably slight but significant.

So I thought more deeply about it. If I say that you and your family have been on my heart, what does that mean?

I think it means I am thinking about you. I have been feeling drawn to you, as if I should reach out to you. It is a yearning, a desire, a need for connection.

But if I say that you and your family are in my heart, it sounds like the connection is more continual: like I am always carrying you with me, that our emotional link is always there.

And perhaps that is what the student was getting at: he or she didn’t just want to yearn for scripture or just have a desire for connection with it; but the student wanted scripture to be carried around within their heart at all times, to be always linked.

So I think that explains the student’s question, but then there is the rabbi’s answer, which explains that while studying the scripture can put it on our heart, only God can put it in our hearts. And then he talks about how we read scripture until our hearts break, and then the holy words fall inside. And again, I was sure that rabbi was thinking about this passage in Jeremiah, so I looked at it again as well.

And the word that most helped me, was the word that God uses for how these words will be put upon our hearts. The phrase used is “I will engrave them on their hearts.” Engrave.

What do you engrave words on? [expect answer of stone] Engraving is something you do to write on that which is hard, that which is resistant to change.

When we read scripture, it is engraved upon our hearts. And the process of permanent change begins, but it is not completed, because our hearts are still hard, they are still stone. But God can cause a change, and I think the rabbi is referring to Ezekiel 36:26, where God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe my case laws.”

In a sense, I think that is what the rabbi meant by our heart breaking. When he says our hearts break, I don’t think he meant it like we think of some lover with broken heart, I think he may have meant when our stony hearts break, when we allow them to become softened with love, when they become alive and shed the stony exterior, then the words get inside, and then we can carry them with us all the time. Then our connection with them is constant and complete.

After struggling for a while with the passage, that made sense, imagine the stone heart, where God writes a new covenant on the outside, and these words slowly cause the stone to erode and crumble until our hearts are flesh. But just reading the scripture, even though it is amazing can’t do that. The change of heart is so drastic, that to really soften us, to break away the stone, requires God’s help. Then the new covenant can be lived. I think that is what the rabbi is trying to tell the students.

The interesting thing is, I don’t think we are born with stone hearts. I think we build them up over time. People hurt us, friends disappoint us, and slowly layer after layer our hearts become stone. Kind of like the process of an oyster creating a pearl. Only our stone heart isn’t very pretty. It starts with an irritant and we try to protect ourselves. We don’t like to get hurt. So we try to shelter our emotions, and we prevent ourselves from loving others like God does.

Glynnis Whitwer writes in a devotion on, “My daughter Cathrine held out her hands, palms up, for her brother to see. "Look, I have bumps on my hands ... what are they from?"

Robbie ran his fingers over her palms and answered with the authority of an older brother, "These are calluses, you got them from lifting weights at school. Look at mine."

He turned his hands over, and she ran her fingers over his palms and grinned.

My children's hands are a resume of their work in the gym. Calluses formed to protect their tender skin from harm as they lift weights.

I sat at the table, watching the interaction, and then looked at my hands. Smooth palms and short nails revealed my hardest workouts came at the keyboard, not the gym. But a thought skirted in and around my mind: Where else might calluses have formed?

Turning back to my computer, my eyes stared out the window and my fingers stilled on the keys as an image came to mind. My heart ... covered in calluses.

I closed my eyes and sighed. That explained a lot. My heart is harder than it used to be. And sadly, much harder than I'd like it to be.

It's easy to see how I've gotten here. Each time I've been hurt, my approach to dealing with pain has been stoic. The warrior-like determination inside me to protect myself had affected the softness of my heart. With each offense, each lie, each rejection, I made a silent declaration to not be hurt like that again.

… My empathy was diminished, which is a very dangerous heart-position for someone whom God has called to love others.

I'm convinced these calluses aren't supposed to stay there. A callused heart may protect me from great pain, but it also keeps me from great love. To love deeply, to love like Jesus, requires risk.[2]

Boy Oh Boy, do I get what Glynnis has written here. My heart has callouses! Yet, this passage is talking about the cure for those callouses, that opens us up to loving God and others like we are supposed to. As though one day we are insensitive and incapable of loving like God does. Our hearts are self-centered, they keep everyone except family and a few closer friends at a distance. We can hear about loving our neighbor, but it just doesn’t soak into us. The stone prevents us from changing.

But as time passes we learn to see all people like God does, and we realize that they are connected to us. And the stone is broken away. We allow others into our lives, we carry them with us. And slowly this circle of people grows, until we love everyone as our neighbor.

God promises that this will happen to us. It starts with reading scripture, until the words will be written on our hearts. But then comes the miracle as God softens our hearts and the words will fall into their depths. On that day God’s promise will be fulfilled in us, “The days are surely coming when we will no longer need to teach each other, because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest, and I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.”

[1] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

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